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To the Roof of Taiwan


When Jean-Marc, the owner of Fresh Treks, invited me to go trekking with him, I thought it would be a piece of cake. After all, I am a professional adventure writer. But, two days into the three-day long ordeal, I felt more like a writer than an adventurer.

His warm French accent and light-hearted smile disguised a sinister knowledge, mainly, that he knew I was about to discover how out of my element I would be. A Brooklyn boy is just not designed to climb a mountain in Taiwan. Apparently, climbing nearly 4,000 meters, with all of your gear and food on your back, was a bit more difficult than I had anticipated. 

Four thousand meters didn’t sound like a long way. A fast runner can cover 4,000 meters, at sea level, in about 15 minutes. A competitive swimmer would need about 40 minutes. On a bicycle you could do it in about 20 minutes.

To climb 4,000 meters of altitude, trekking, could require two to three days of arduous walking, scrambling, and cursing in Italian. That last part may have just been my own personal reaction. But you get the point. The length of the climb is not directly proportional to the altitude. In climbing, the nearly 4,000 meters, to the top of San Cha Shan Mountain, we covered a total distance of about 27 KM.

Much of that time we were above 2,000 meters, which is the point where you first begin to feel the effects of the thinning air. The higher you go, the more energy you need to even take a single step. The altitude issue is complicated by the fact that the higher you go, the more climbing you have completed, and the more tired you are.

Apart from Jean-Marc and myself, the rest of the team was a nice, mix of international demographics. There were two French men, a French woman, a Dutch man, four Taiwanese women, and American man. At thirty-seven, I was the grandfather of the group

The first two kilometers of the trek were extremely steep. We struggled up the damp, humid trail, losing site of the sun, which was hidden behind a nearly perfect green sky, made of leaves. The jungle on San Cha Shan is so densely overgrown with tough grass and strong bamboo, that it was nearly impossible to step even a few feet off of the trail. Since the thick growth prevents you from making a camp at any place other than the few campsites, which are on the trail maps, a lot of planning has to go into your trek. Namely, you have to know how many kilometers you can cover in an hour, and insure that you reach the campsite before dark. This being a holiday weekend, we had the added problem that there were hundreds of trekkers on the trail ahead of us. As some of the sparse camps were only large enough for one or two tents, competition for the sleeping grounds was fierce.

We reached the first campsite in the early afternoon. It was a little early to stop for the night, and we probably could have made the next campsite before dark, but we decided to stay where we were, for fear that the next campsite might be occupied. Within minutes of erecting our tents, we realized that we had made the right decision. A second group arrived, and tried to seize our land.

“Our group leader believes we will sleep here tonight.” Said a Taiwanese woman, expecting us to take our tents down and move on.
“I guess he’s going to e disappointed.” I said.
She tried several more times to get us to leave, by evoking the power of this unseen leader. But we were unmoved. Afterwards, one of our team members, Janet, a Taiwanese girl from New York City said. “We should have said Take me to your leader. I mean, when do you ever get to use that phrase?”

Right after the leader-lady left, it began to rain. If there had been any doubt that we had made camp too early, before, there was none now. Although at my home in Kaohsiung the weather felt like a New York summer, inside that dense forest, at altitude, the weather felt like a Scottish winter. We all put on our raingear, and stood around, shivering, while Jean-Marc prepared dinner. True to the French stereotype, food seemed to be the one thing that Jean-Marc valued more than photos. Dinner was an elaborate affair, which began with vegetable soup, followed by brazed meat and vegetables, served over noodles, and accompanied by good, European bread, French cheese and French sausage.

Covered in mud, and soaked to the bone in an Asian forest one does not expect to hear the phrase. “Who would like more formage and saucison?”

All of the meals were at least this good. And every meal was followed by coffee and alcohol.

The excellent food added a surreal quality to the trip. Jeremy, an American on our team said. “Man, I don’t eat this well at home.”
I had to agree with him. It’s pretty sad when you have to go into the woods to get a good meal.

As much as we all enjoyed talking together, the rain drove us back to our tents immediately after our meal. Our campsite was only inches larger than our three tents. In fact, I could only barely squeeze between the jungle and the opening of my tent. Next, it was a balletic feat of contortion to get inside. Just to remove my shoes I had to twist myself into impossible positions. I looked like something between a yoga routine, and the solo version of the Karma Sutra, balancing, with one naked foot inside the tent, and a filthy boot hanging outside. Next came removing wet clothing, while sitting on my sleeping bag, it was hopeless. Perhaps if I had been more limber I could have had a dry place to sleep.

Late that night, there was a commotion coming from the girls’ tent. One of the Taiwanese woman, May Li, over-come by some nameless phobia, had gone insane, running into the jungle, screaming. For some inexplicable reason, at that exact moment, four Taiwanese guys, from another group, were coming down the trail. May Li begged them to take her down the mountain. This was baffling for the rest of us. Why were these guys hiking down the mountain in the dark, and in a rainstorm? Even more, I couldn’t imagine what imaginary fear had driven May Li to want to join these strange men in such a dangerous undertaking. It had taken us several hours to hike in, and that was in the light, and with favorable weather conditions. In the dark, and with this rain, they would probably have to hike all night.

Jean-Marc was called out of the tent to deal with the May Li situation. As much as I thought it would have been an entertaining spectacle, I opted to remain in the semi-comfort of my damp sleeping bag. Perhaps in better weather I might have tried to stop her. But under these conditions, I thought. May Li was a big girl. If she wanted to commit suicide, that was her business.

After several failed attempts to convince her to stay, Jean-Marc let May Li go. As he explained to me later, he could possibly have forced her to stay that night, but then she would have to tag along with us for the next three days, which would possibly have been even more traumatic for her.

The next morning, we donned headlamps, and broke camp at 3:30 AM. The rain had stopped, but the whole forest was dripping-wet. We were soaked to the bone within minutes of starting out. Luckily, as the day progressed, the weather warmed up. Eventually, the jungle broke, and gave way to rolling green hills, bathed in sunlight. The combination of being able to see the sun again and feeling dry and warm raised our spirits.

The views from the hills were incredible. The whole world was green, right up to where it met a clear sky, of the deepest blue. It could have been Thailand. Without the jungle it could have been the Alps. It could have been anywhere. It was hard to believe that it was Taiwan. I thought Taiwan was the smelly, congested cities that sprawl endlessly, blocking the sun. But at that moment I remembered that Taiwan was also a tropical island, in the Pacific Ocean. Although the urban sprawl is what most people see, nearly the entire population of Taiwan is centered along the West coast, which leaves the most of the interior of the island uninhabited, natural, and breathtaking.

As much as the scenery was pleasant, hours and hours of walking, climbing up and up is exhausting. There were times I let a photo-op go by, simply because I was too tired to lift my camera. Jean-Marc, who is in incredible shape, from doing these trips for a living, would point out some natural feature and say. “Isn’t that beautiful?”

Without even looking, I would mutter my agreement.
“But you did not look.” Said Jean-Marc.
“I was too tired to look.” I said.
“Today we will come to a special peak that I am looking forward to showing you guys.” Said Jean-Marc.
“I don’t care.” I said. Fatigue robbed me of both enthusiasm and civility.
“Tomorrow, we will get up early and watch the sun rise on the lake.”
“Big deal.” I was panting like a dog, climbing up in the thin air. I suspected that someone was sneaking up behind me, and putting rocks in my backpack, because it kept getting heavier all day.
“Don’t you want to see the sunrise?” He asked.
“I’ve seen sunrises. It rises in Brooklyn too, you know.”

I had flown five thousand miles, to Taiwan, so I could be out in the rain, sleep on the ground, and urinate on a bush. We have people like that back in Brooklyn, but we call them homeless.

Normally, I do all of my adventure trips alone. But having so many interesting people to talk to was nice. When we could muster the energy to talk, Jeremy and I discussed politics. Normally. At rest, I could hold my own. But as I mentioned, he was fifteen years younger than I was. So, when I was panting, crawling along at a snail’s pace, he was leaping up beside me, saying things like. “The CIA killed Kennedy.” Or, “The IMF is evil.”
Normally, I enjoy the IMF argument. But this day, I was so tired I found it easier to just agree with everything. “You’re right.” I wheezed. “The IMF killed Kennedy. Stupid IMF!”

The Europeans were also a lot of fun, never missing an opportunity to remind me how uneducated and uncouth Americans are. Of course no one had bathed in three days, so it was hard to take them seriously. That’s the nice thing about trekking. It makes everyone equal. And it makes everyone smelly. That’s why communism could never work. The only end of the spectrum where we could all find equality is the smelly end. It’s hard to imagine, but even my imaginary-girlfriend, Britney Spears, would smell if she walked all day and slept in her clothes. In fact, that realization reduced my Britney obsession to unusually tolerable levels. I may even stop stalking her.

We reached the refuge by early afternoon. This was an aluminum hut, which would be our lodgings for the night. Once again, we were torn. We would have liked to continue, another two and a half kilometers up to the lake, but just as we had decided to stay where we were, it began to pour.

We weren’t alone in the refuge. A large Taiwanese group was also there. Even on the coldest day, the Taiwanese just don’t close the door behind them when they enter or leave a room. They just have no regard for other people. One of them would go outside, and leave the door open, and the rain and cold would come in. Then one of the Europeans in our party would have to get up and close the door. Two minutes later, another Taiwanese would go outside, leaving the door open. And once again, one of us would take it in turn to close the door.

At one point, an old guy came over, and announced with great authority that he was the leader of the other group. I yawned. He then said that we had to leave the door open or we would all die of carbon dioxide poisoning. I laughed. When I realized he wasn’t joking, I was just getting ready to belittle him, when Jean-Marc intervened. He had an incredible way with people, and within minutes, he had this guy eating out of his hand. Where I wanted to destroy the guy, Jean-Marc wanted to make friends with him. This must be the fundamental difference between Brooklyn and France.

Outside the refuge there was a single water pipe, which dripped a slow trickle into a large washbasin. I was refilling my bottle, by holding it under the pipe, when the leader of the other group came over and began giving me a dressing down.
“You should fill your bottle from the washbasin, not from the pipe, because it takes to long.”
People had been washing dishes in the washbasin all day. There was rice and pork fat floating in it. There was no way I was drinking that water.
“What are you crazy?” I yelled, in extremely rude Chinese, before Jean-Marc could intervene. “That water is frigin’ dirty! I’m not drinking it.” I was still annoyed about the open door issue. Actually, it wasn’t that the guy wanted the door open, or that he wanted me to drink someone else’s waste that annoyed me. It was the fact that because he was a group leader, he thought he could give me orders. I just wanted to make sure that he understood that he couldn’t.
“But that water is pure.” He protested. “It is spring water.”
“This water is pure?” I asked, splashing some of it near his feet. “Don’t you see all of this crap floating in it?”
“We drank some yesterday.” He said, as if this somehow mattered. In my mind, all he did was confirm that he drank dirty water, not that this water was clean.
“I’m not drinking it. It’s filthy.”
“No, it’s fine. You just have to boil it.” He answered, flustered.
Just a minute ago, he was telling me the water was pure. Now he was telling me that it had to be boiled. Not only was he contradicting himself, but boiling wasn’t going to get that rice and pork fat out of there.
“Don’t you have eyes?” I asked, pointing at the rice again.
At this point, Jean-Marc had heard enough. He stepped in and made friends with the guy.

Back in the refuge, we staked out places for our team in the dormitory room. One of the Taiwanese girls came to me and said. “Another, very big group is staying here tonight. So we have to make room for them. Their leader said that you should sleep in the utility closet.”

At first, I thought she was kidding. Why would I want to sleep in a utility closet? Why would I want to take orders from someone else’s group leader? But she was serious. She was suffering from that over-obedience gene inherent in Taiwanese people. As soon as someone has the title of “leader,” they all bend over backwards to obey him.

I checked out the utility closet, and found that it had a number of advantages over the main dormitory. It had its own door, which meant it would be much quieter. Also, it would be warmer, as the old guy wouldn’t force me to leave the door open. The only disadvantage was that there was actually room for two people in there. For one person it was a luxurious suite. With two people it would be crowded. And, depending who that other person was, it could be a nightmare. What I needed was a plan to keep anyone else from even considering sleeping in there with me.

I put an angry scowl on my face, and came out of the utility closet looking like I did when the Dodgers moved to LA. I kicked a stool against the wall, and began shouting in Chinese, so everyone would understand. “Why the hell do I have to sleep in there? Is it because I am a foreigner? You want to give the bad sleeping places to the foreigners? It’s not fair.”

Several of the Taiwanese came over to placate me. They explained again that the group leader had “requested” that I sleep in there.

“Oh, because some old guy said so, this means I have to sleep in the closet?” I asked. “We got old guys in America, and yet no one has to sleep in a closet.”

The girls kept talking to me in that soothing voice they use when explaining things to a three year old.

“There are many people in the refuge.” They said.
“Yes, and there is room for one more.”
“But he is a group leader.” They kept explaining.
“So, why doesn’t he go sleep in there?”
It was really hard for me not to laugh. This was one of those instances where I was playing a joke, but I was the only one who knew about, and the only one who thought it was funny. In the end, I conceded to the girls’ wishes, and moped back into my cell, closed the door behind me, and did a victory dance. In an over-crowded world where everyone was forced to share everything, where the rest of my team would be sleeping side by side with strangers, subjected to the farts, burps and nightmares of people they didn’t know, I had a private room. I stretched out, way out, and went to sleep.

The plan for our final day was quite ambitious. While the Europeans slept in, Jean-Marc, Jeremy, Janet, the two remaining Taiwanese girls, and I set out, at three in the morning, in order to reach the summit, in time to watch the sunrise. The idea was that we would make the five kilometer, round trip hike, and arrive back at the refuge by nine o’clock, when we would pick up the rest of the team, and hike all the way back down to the car. This meant, by the end of the day, our advance team would have hiked 17 km.

The one advantage we had in the hike to the summit was that we had left our packs in the refuge. But, even unladen, the last thousand meters of elevation were painful. Far above the protection of the tree line, the way was steep, exposing us to the bone-chilling mountain winds. This was the first time in my life, other than on an airplane, that I could ever look down, and see clouds, like a huge, rolling, white carpet of cotton stretching out to infinity. The view reminded me of being out at sea, and not knowing where the earth ended and the sky began.

Through my frantic breathing, even I was able to appreciate the wonder that we witnessed. But, it would get even better. Slowly, the most distant clouds began to glow a dull yellow. Next, the yellow turned to orange, and the spot of color expanded. Finally, orange gave way to bright red, as the sunrise turned our carpet of cotton to a carpet of roses.

The sun may rise in Brooklyn, but it never looked like this. In the golden light that played along the fluffy clouds you could see the hand of God.

Once the sunrise show was over, we hiked back to the refuge. We took a ten-minute nap, and began down the mountain. You would think that hiking down would be easier than hiking up. And, it is. But, it is much harder on your knees, and requires more care, as you are prone to falling. The trip down reminded me of driving in a heavy rain. You make slow progress, and are exhausted by your careful attention and vigilance. Each step had to be thoroughly thought out, or you would land face down.

I lost count at three hundred times, but I know I fell a lot. Each time, luckily, I landed on my butt, which was nice, since my feet were blistered, there was a certain symmetry to having a bruised bottom. I took a lot of the more difficult obstacles ape-style, using my arms as much as my legs. This also balanced things out. Since my lower body had gotten such a good work out, I wanted to give my arms some exercise too.

When we were less than two hours from the bottom, we stopped for a breather, when another, old Chinese guy attacked us. He puffed up his chest, walked over to us, and began shouting at us rudely in English.
“You clean up your trash!” He commanded.
Trash?! What trash? We had only been there two seconds. We hadn’t eaten anything. In fact, we hadn’t even taken off our packs.
“I am the manager of the volunteer mountain cleaners.” He shouted, as if someone cared.
I was trying to catch my breath, so I could straighten him out, when Jean-Marc, who is in much better shape than I am jumped up, and made friends with the guy. Jean-Marc commended him on the value of his work, and thanked him for protecting the forest. They shook hands about fifty times. At one point, I thought they were going to get a room together, or at least hug, but the guy was late for an appointment to yell at someone else.

As he was leaving, the old guy, inexplicably, turned around, and yelled in English. “I am a retired school teacher.”

“What the hell was that?” I asked, after he had gone.
“What do you mean?” Asked Jean-Marc, as if he hadn’t seen what I had.
“I can’t believe how nice you were to that guy.” I said. “I was going to tell him to go screw himself. You know why he is a volunteer worker? It’s because no one was willing to pay him.”
Jean-Marc laughed. “You are funny because you are always angry. If I had a tape recorder, then every time I was sad I could listen to you complaining or yelling at people and it would cheer me up.”

I was nearly the last to reach the car. And when I got there, I thought I would die. Since we couldn’t shower, I at least wanted to change clothes, but my feet were so swollen, that I was worried that once I took my shoes off, I wouldn’t be able to put them back on.

In the end, I had completed a long hike, seen yet another side of Taiwan, witnessed the beauty of nature, and made some new friends. I had also made some enemies, but that’s normal for me. I had suffered, but I would gladly do it again. Next time, though, I will probably wear hiking shoes, instead of army boots. Also, I think I will put in a few hours on the stair master, so that when I have the opportunity, I won’t be too winded to yell at someone.

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